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Just Breathe

Just breatheBlonde, bright, beautiful, she is a woman of a certain age who looks as though she has always been pretty, effortlessly so, and mostly because it starts inside. She has a light in her eyes that says she's delighted with herself and everyone around her.

She moved to Carmel from the East Coast a year ago and exudes a sensibility somewhere between New York and California — which doesn’t mean Kansas.

We met because I was asked to serve as the “welcome wagon” for this woman, who was my sister’s husband’s sister’s daughter’s best friend’s mother. She invited me in for a glass of wine and I told myself I would linger no more than an hour. But we swapped stories for five, and said goodbye as old friends just before midnight.

I admired her energy and her eloquence, and how comfortable she seemed with herself and her surroundings. In one month, she had done more to her house, hosted more parties, and made more friends than many of us had in years. I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to befriend her or be her.

Six months later, she returned to the East Coast to attend a three-day celebration, visit old friends, and arrange for her mother to move into an assisted-living facility. After two weeks, she returned to Carmel, happy to be home, teeming with new tales, and secretly admitting the trip had been far more stressful than she had anticipated. 

Days later, a mutual friend happened to drive by her home to discover three police cars and an ambulance parked in her driveway. He stopped his car and got out, just as she was taken from her house by two paramedics. She seemed agitated, confused, and reluctant to go with them.

“What’s happening to my friend?” he asked.

“Your friend?” the ambulance attendant said. “What is her name?”

When he offered her name, the attendant said, “I’m sorry; that’s not the name she gave us. It’s about HIPAA. We can’t tell you anything.”

Passed in 1996, HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, in part protects patient privacy, setting strict standards that address the use and disclosure of an individual’s protected health information. What we came to find out later was that our friend had provided her legal name to the ambulance attendant rather than the name she used among friends. With that, she effectively disappeared inside the ambulance, moving farther and farther from our reach as the vehicle drove down the road.

Our mutual friend stopped by the Carmel Police Department and explained his dilemma. “I’m sorry,” said the officer. “HIPAA rules prevent me from telling you who they took in the ambulance or where they took her.”
Our friend called Community Hospital and gave the name he knew. “I’m sorry,” said the operator. “No one has been admitted by that name.”

Then he called me. I called my sister to reach her husband to access his sister to contact her daughter to find her best friend, who might be able to help us find her mother. By nightfall, I was speaking with my new friend’s daughter. I had her mother’s legal name, her whereabouts, her diagnosis, and her prognosis for recovery — and more detail about what had happened.

Seemingly safe and secure in her Carmel home that afternoon, my friend suddenly had no idea who she was, what she was doing, where she was, or how long she had been there.

The one thing she did know was her daughter’s name and how to contact her in San Francisco. So she called her and explained her confusion. Her daughter promptly contacted the Carmel Police Department, which dispatched an ambulance and officers, which arrived at her mother’s home just as our mutual friend drove by.

At the hospital, Emergency department staff concluded our friend had suffered “frontal lobe amnesia,” a temporary condition brought on, most likely, by extreme stress.

By bedtime, she was back home, clear about who and where she was, but
with no recollection of any of the day’s events.

By morning, we had exchanged information on legal names, health conditions, prescription medications, and next of kin, with a keener understanding of the strength of HIPAA deepening the bonds of friendship.